Saturday, October 18, 2014

Life in 3/4 Time

I’m still working my way through the large Classical Fake Book (a collection of famous themes with the left hand parts in chord symbols only— like the jazz counterpart, you need to know how to unravel them. But it means that you can squeeze over 700 melodies between two covers!) Lately, I find myself drawn to the waltz section. Not so much Chopin, Schubert and Brahms (though some of all), but the lighter Viennese fare of Johann Strauss Jr. And a few by a contemporary whose music you would know but probably not his name—Emile Waldteufel (which apparently means “forest-devil”).

Both had interesting lives, but that’s not the point here. What struck me was how many of these melodies were so familiar. Except for the Blue Danube, I didn’t know so many of the names—The Emperor Waltz, Vienna Life, Voices of Spring, Tales from the Vienna Woods (all Strauss), Skater’s Waltz (Waldteufel). If you’re over 40 years old, I suspect you would recognize them also. Why?

Movies. The old ones in the 30’s through 50’s, the kind that had a ball with a live orchestra and the dancers waltzing in fairy-tale wonder while two people fell in love or out of love or some intrigue was happening upstairs or in the hall. These are the tunes they were playing! And so playing them on the piano, I’m transported instantly to some world of romance where the lights are glittering and the bodies circling around the grand room and all—including the viewer—is swept up in the grandeur of it all. Almost all the tunes are in major— no dark film noir atmosphere here. And so just as the heads bob up and down and the arms are held high and the feet lifted, so the heart is uplifted.

It’s a good repertoire to play in the Jewish Home (and both Strauss and Waldteufel had some Jewish blood!)— I feel the pleasure in the room as old, tired muscles recall their youth and begin dancing again at the cellular level. Whether you’re three or 103, waltzes are one of those archetypal rhythms that will get your body swinging and swaying before you have time to consider whether or not you want to dance. And the memory probably penetrates deeper, as swinging is what you also did on swings on the playground and swaying is kissing-cousin to the rocking you enjoyed in your mother’s arms. In the hands of Strauss and the like, the melodies are infectious, but almost secondarily to the bodily pleasure of three oom-pah-pah beats to the bar.

But like blues, bluegrass and a few other musical forms, I can only take so much in a row. By the 5th or 6th waltz, I’m ready for some dark minor melodies or some gut-bucket rhythm ‘n’ blues. But hey, that’s why God made multiple meters and tempos and keys and scales and instruments and styles. We’re a complex blend of rhythms and emotions, a heterogeneous blend of multiple personalities and each has its accompanying music to affirm, evoke or keep it company.

I wrote this listening to the CD I purchased of waltzes. It was lovely— but now time for some James Brown!

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